May 28, 2023

San Francisco Cable Cars Celebrate 150 Years With Historic Ride

Wednesday marked 150 years to the day that entrepreneur Andrew Hallidie put San Francisco’s first cable car in motion, and luminaries including Mayor London Breed, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and Fannie Mae Barnes—the first woman to work as a cable car grip—turned out to mark the century-and-a-half birthday of San Francisco’s signature mode of transportation.

Speaking before a cable car decorated with orange roses, dahlias and carnations at the Powell Street Turnaround, Breed said the technological achievement was one in a series of firsts. Another local invention? The Clapper, Breed said, drawing giggles.

The mayor also cited the influential role of women in cable car history, including Friedel Klussmann, a city resident who saved the wooden cars from near extinction back in 1947 to Barnes, who became the first woman to do the physically demanding job then called “gripman” back in 1998, when she was 52. Former Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who was instrumental in securing millions of dollars in federal funding to rehabilitate San Francisco’s cable cars, did not attend the event.

Barnes, who is now retired, whom Pelosi called “the VIP of the day,” was on hand along with family members.

“Growing up in a small town in Georgia, my mom said you can do exactly what you want; you just have to put the work in,” Barnes said to applause.

The display of San Francisco pride took place against a backdrop that served as a reminder of San Francisco’s well-documented woes, with the speakers’ podium sandwiched between a long-shuttered Gap flagship store and an AT&T building shrink-wrapped in white vinyl, calling to mind the retail vacancies that are plaguing Downtown.

But the mood was upbeat. “Cable cars can take you halfway to the stars,” said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway. “They can also take you 150 years back in history.”

Some participants were in costume to honor the period, including those dressed as historic figures, such as Hallidie and Emperor Norton, the eccentric 19th century businessman, as well as the elegantly clad members of the Art Deco Society of California. Donna Huggins, known for impersonating San Francisco’s first firewoman, Lillie Coit, chose to commemorate a different moment in the city’s history, dressing up as a tie-dye-clad hippie and waving a “Peace, Love, and Cable Cars” sign.

The festivities ended with a rendition of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in remembrance of the beloved baritone, who died last month at 96. Breed announced that Laubscher’s proposal to name a cable car after Bennett was on track to become a reality.

Cable Car No. 1, modeled on the original 1888 design and loaded with special guests, pulled away from the turnaround to climb halfway to the stars.

Julie Zigoris can be reached at [email protected]

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